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The Case for Tanner Fritz

Tanner Fritz could be a solid third line forward if given the opportunity

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Minnesota Wild v New York Islanders

At the age of 26, Tanner Fritz played his first 34 NHL games last season after spending 160 games in the ECHL and AHL. For a somewhat undersized winger (5’11”, 192 lbs) he failed to distinguish himself on the scoreboard, recording a mere three goals and four assists on the season.

However, he did help to set up quite a few scoring chances for his linemates Andrew Ladd and Brock Nelson. After the Islanders switched defensive zone systems late in the season, the trio matched opponents in terms of shots and scoring chances when on the ice at 5v5, which was rare for a NYI forward line last season.

Spizzwolf created a video of Fritz’s best moments from this past season, as seen below. While we scanned through Fritz shifts, I was struck by how often he covered for pinching defensemen, whether he was center or on the wing.

It was very rare to see the Isles allow an odd-man break with Tanner on the ice this past season, by the eye-test. That is only featured once or twice in the highlights, but it is worth noting, as the Isles struggled with that issue as a team quite often.

We do see Fritz’s passing and skating ability. He was a menace from the wing at times, because his cross-ice pass was often right on the blade of cutting teammates.

When Steve Bernier was called up in December, Fritz had compiled 19 even-strength points in 22 AHL games. At the time, I believe it was the best rate in the AHL. Here is how his even-strength points-per-game rate at the time compared to some best seasons of past Bridgeport forwards:

  • 0.86 T. Fritz (this past season, to December)
  • 0.76 R. Strome (2013-14, 34 GP…. 49 points, 21 of which were PP.)
  • 0.73 J. Bailey (2010-11, 11 GP…. 9 of his 17 points were special-teams.)
  • 0.61 A. Quine (2015-16, 56 GP)
  • 0.55 C. McDonald (2014-15, 40 GP)
  • 0.46 A. Lee (2014-15, 54 GP)
  • 0.39 B. Nelson (2012-13, 66 GP…. 52 points, with half on special teams)

While Bailey, Lee, Strome, and Nelson were still developing, they were each at least fringe-NHL quality at the time.

On the down side, Fritz is too easily knocked off the puck. He isn’t very good along the boards when he loses momentum. If he was more solid on his skates he would be a candidate for 2nd line winger, with his skating and passing ability. All typical third and fourth line wingers have some deficiency.

The underlying stats suggest that his skating, passing, and defensive neutral zone play more than make up for his lack of stability on his skates, especially compared to other bottom-six forwards earning under $1 million around the NHL.

Ladd-Nelson-Fritz was 52% CF as a line (venue and score adjusted, according to Natural Stat Trick) in the last 25 games of the season at 45% zone-starts, on a team that was 46% CF without them on the ice (over that stretch). In other words, the Islanders were out-shooting opponents with the trio on the ice together, while they were out-shot by a decent margin without them on the ice.

The line battled weaker competition, but they would likely face similar competition this upcoming season, if six of the following constitute the top two scoring lines: Mathew Barzal, Jordan Eberle, Anders Lee, Anthony Beauvillier, Josh Bailey, Jan Kovar, and Josh Ho-Sang. One of the seven would be left over so that Casey Cizikas can have a quality winger for his line. Last season Cizikas had three under-performing linemates in Jason Chimera, Cal Clutterbuck, and Ross Johnston.

Without Fritz on the ice the last 25 games, Nelson and Ladd were 42% CF in 55 minutes with 41% zone-starts together, for what it’s worth. That is an extremely small sample size, but I think it is notable, as it shows they struggled as a duo without Fritz’s skating and passing ability.

I am not convinced Fritz is a bottom-6 winger in the NHL — and the Islanders certainly have a lot of candidates there — but at 26 years old I believe he has a better chance going forward than Clutterbuck (30), Leo Komarov (31), Matt Martin (29), and likely Tom Kuhnhackl (26) and Valtteri Filppula (34) as well.

It would perhaps be reasonable if Fritz went to Bridgeport to start the season, but he has to pass through waivers, and I am not sure he makes it through. At $650,000 cap hit he may be able to return a 3rd round pick at the deadline, from a contender up against the cap ceiling. Now is the time to do what the Isles can to gain assets. A 3rd round pick may seem small, but it’s worth something, in terms of currency.

Perhaps Fritz performs above what we imagine and is a good RW3 for the next few seasons. I do not feel like we have that same optimism with most of the other 3rd and 4th line wing options at this time.

Spizzwolf on Tanner Fritz

My view on Tanner Fritz would best be explained through a timeline:

Part 1: October through December 2017

As Travis explains, Fritz was playing at an elite level in the AHL. He was one of the league’s most productive players, scoring 38 points in 35 games and getting selected as an AHL All Star. There’s no doubt he earned and deserved his promotion when the Islanders called him up on New Year’s Day.

Part 2: Jan. 2 through Feb. 3

Fritz makes his NHL debut. He plays in 11 of the Islanders’ 14 games in this time. He put up 0 goals and 0 assists with a 36.6% on-ice shot differential. This first stint of games was thoroughly unimpressive, both statistically and to the eye.

Part 3: Feb. 5 through Feb. 13

Fritz gets scratched for five consecutive games.

Part 4: Feb. 15 through April 7

After getting scratched for five straight games, Fritz is put back into the lineup in the 3-0 win over the stank-ass Rangers on Feb. 15. He plays 23 of the Isles’ last 24 games and in this time, as covered above, that Fritz-Ladd-Nelson line played quite well. A line maintaining a 52% shot differential for a quarter-season might not ordinarily be worth pointing out, but the Islanders’ bottom six was so anemic last season, I agree with my colleague that it was noteworthy.

I’m presenting the facts to you in this manner to put Fritz’s performance in context. He was tearing it up in the AHL and got called up to the big show. Though he earned the opportunity with his play, at 26 years old, this could conceivably have been his only shot at an NHL career.

But he failed to capitalize on the opportunity. Whether it was a matter of his having to get used to a different, non-offensive role in the NHL or anywhateverthing else, those first 11 games were absolutely brutal. He deserved to be scratched and, in fact, I don’t even think a demotion back to Bridgeport would’ve been entirely unjustified. That’s just how little he showed in those first 11 games. I expected to at least see sporadic glimpses of what made him light it up in the AHL, but he showed me nothing whatsoever.

So he gets scratched five straight games and lemme tell you something, he must’ve done some serious soul-searching during his time in the press box. Because when he got put back into the lineup, he played like his NHL career was on the line.

He played with relentless effort, with all-out desperation. He back-checked hard and always made sure to get back if any of his defensemen needed support. He heaved his body into shooting lanes to show the coaching staff a previously-absent willingness to sacrifice his body.

From that moment until season’s end, it looked to me like an entirely different player wearing no. 56 for the Islanders. And the stats back that up strongly.

Once he established that energy and effort, the skill soon followed. He got on the scoresheet in his third game back and started playing with confidence, showing glimpses of why he had dominated the second-best hockey league in North America the first half of the season.

Fritz showed some really nice passing skill and good wheels, too. He played responsibly while smartly picking his spots to use his speed to create offense.

All this is to say I like Fritz’s game quite a bit and hope he gets a legitimate look during training camp. He’s got a responsible, two-way game with some offensive upside and I think he’s one of the team’s better third line options.

And that’s just about all I have to say about Tanner Fritz.